In the wake of that, Wolves have gone into what amounts to a nervous breakdown. There are those who now argue that Mick McCarthy should never have been sacked in the wake of that defeat but anybody who was at Molineux on that day, who encountered the febrile atmosphere, the witch hunt there was for McCarthy that day, will know only too well that the idea that he could be leading the team in Wolverhampton a fortnight later is the stuff of fantasy. After a result, and a performance of that nature, he had to go.
Wolves’ problem was that they seemed to have no succession plan in place which appears laughable now given that it was obvious to anyone that McCarthy’s time was running out. Loyalty is a highly laudable thing, and there was great support for McCarthy within the corridors of power at Wolves, but in truth, his time had come months before. Having survived by the skin of their teeth the previous season, that was the time to remove McCarthy, a manager highly adept at getting teams promoted but largely unable to take them onto another level beyond that. Having earned them a third straight Premiership season, if Wolves had truly wanted to progress, the time to move him on was the summer of 2011. They did not and from there, all bets were off.
Just as extraordinary was the decision to build a new stand. Presumably, Wolves felt they were now settled and established in the top flight and in need of more seats, a conclusion that makes the decision to persevere with McCarthy all the stranger. As past experience shows – especially from the original redevelopment of Molineux – you cannot improve your stadium without first improving your team. Wolves failed to heed the lessons of history and are paying the price as a result.
All of the 2011/12 campaign was a long fight against relegation, as it was always destined to be under McCarthy. Only too late did they jettison him, under duress, and then they compounded the error in finding a successor. A deal was done with Steve Bruce, only for the board to lose their nerve once the message boards suggested the fans didn’t want him, thinking they could get a “bigger name”. Compare and contrast, as they used to say on exam papers, the differing fortunes of Wolves and Bruce last weekend.
They then dithered about before announcing that their number one choice had been Terry Connor all along. Firstly, he clearly wasn’t, which meant that from day one, he was undermined. Secondly, he was McCarthy’s assistant. Clearly they had concluded that the McCarthy era had run its course and, if so, clearly his staff were also a part of the problem. It wasn’t as if McCarthy had gone on to bigger and better things and they were looking for continuity in his wake. They were needing a fresh start, so why not have one?
Once Connor had completed McCarthy’s work and taken Wolves down with a whimper, the club finally decided on a change of course and to bring that freshness, appointed Stale Solbakken. The Norwegian was charged with bringing a more progressive style to a team schooled in the more rudimentary approach of McCarthy and after promising early signs when a push for the top six looked possible, things took a turn for the worse. Defeat at Luton in the FA Cup was the last straw and in January, after just seven months at the helm, he was removed, that experiment seemingly over.
In came Dean Saunders, rippling with Doncaster pedigree, his way with a one liner supposedly just the charm that was needed to lift the pessimistic gloom that hung like a pall over Molineux. That went well didn’t it? And now, Saunders is in the dole queue with his P45 in his hand and Wolves look to find a manager to take them out of League One. All over the Black Country, barely suppressed laughter can be heard tumbling from blue and white mouths.
But football lives on fine margins. That day at Molineux, 12th February 2012. Going into the game, Albion had taken four points from six games and had 26 points from 24 games. Wolves had just won at QPR, had 21 points from 24 games and were out of the bottom three. Albion murdered Wolves through the first half, but a last ditch Fletcher goal saw the sides in at 1-1. Albion’s domination continued in the second period, but the game remained tight. At 2-1 to the visitors, Foster produced a phenomenal save then, from a corner, Wolves looked to have equalised, only for Mulumbu to rise and head the ball off the line. From there, Wolves collapsed, lost 5-1 and nervous collapse followed.
Just imagine Mulumbu was two inches shorter. The ball goes in, it’s 2-2, Albion deflated, Wolves suddenly ascendant. They win the game, get a rush of confidence from it and string some points together. Albion, on the other hand, are crushed and go into decline, ending in relegation. Roy Hodgson not only doesn’t get the England job, but he leaves at season’s end with his contract at an end, leaving Albion to find a new boss to try and restore them to the Premier League. Meanwhile, a feelgood factor surrounds Molineux, season ticket sales go through the roof, the new stand is full, McCarthy leaves, they appoint a progressive manager like Steve Clarke, and suddenly they are pushing for Europe. Seems ludicrous now, but the skin on Mulumbu’s head – there’s a name for a fanzine if ever there was one – might just have been the difference between one future and another.
Back to the present, and just hold on a minute. Decline – like success – very rarely lasts forever. Let us take a look, for example, at the 1997/98 campaign, and focus up on the bottom tier. The five clubs that propped up the Football League were Swansea City, Cardiff City, Hull City, Brighton & Hove Albion and Doncaster Rovers. Manchester City and Stoke City had just been relegated to Division Two. They’ve all had quite decent seasons as it turns out.
And Wolves will rise again. Why? Because the club is too big not to, because, above all, it has history. That history pulled them out of the mire through the ‘80s and ‘90s when it was going catastrophically wrong and it will do so again. The financiers will tell you that you can’t find history on the balance sheet. Maybe not, but you can find it in the P&L account. When we all come back in August, look at the number of season tickets Wolves sell and the size of their crowd and those at Stevenage. Wolves’ numbers will be three or four times greater than theirs and why? Because of Billy Wright, Stan Cullis, John Richards, Derek Dougan, because they built the club, because supporters hope their like will come again. In the end, history will create a future for Wolves. And you can take that to the bank.